Website banner: Sunset over Knocknarea
Two of the largest monuments, Circles 27 and 26 on the east side of Carrowmore.

The Carrowmore Monuments

The kind of monuments found at Carrowmore are the earliest kind of passage grave in Ireland. The Carrowmore examples consist of a ring of stone surrounding a raised platform or tertre. The raised area supports a central burial chamber constructed of glacial erratics which is usually connected to the boundry circle by a symbolic passage-way.

The Kissing Stone, Circle 7 at Carrowmorre in County Sligo.
The Kissing Stone, Circle 7 at Carrowmore in County Sligo.

We believe the Carrowmore monuments to have been built by a colony of very early farmers who arrive in Ireland, most likely from the Carnac region in west France, arriving here by about 4,150 BC, when the causewayed enclosure at Magheraby was constructed. These farmers brought a new kind of burial practice to Ireland: cremations, but where the human remains were placed in a communal burial chamber at the centre of the circle of stones.

The Irish hunter-gatherers already practiced cremation, but from what we can tell, placed a single body in a pit in the ground, sometimes with an artifact such as an axe head. The new form of burial was communal and involved raising the reusable chamber above the surrounding ground level.

A cave in the north face of Knocknarea.
A cave in the north cliffs of Knocknarea mountain.

Construction materials

The stones that were used to construct the Carrowmore monuments are a very hard form of glacial erratic called gneiss, which originated in the nearby Ox Mountains where several more neolithic monuments still mark an ancient tribal boundary.

The stones were already present in Carrowmore when the farmers arrived - glacial debris littering the landscape. The newcomers may have chosen this location for several reasons, but a large attraction was the availability of materials.

A local tradition—which is also found in Loughcrew—recounts how the monuments were built by a Cailleach named Garavogue who had a house high up on the Ballygawley mountains. She gathered the rocks in her white apron and cast them across the landscape to form the Carrowmore circles. In the 1880's these monuments were known as the Hag's Beds.

There are an average of 30 to 35 stones in each remaining circle, the boulders set side by side in a continious ring. Some of the stones are placed on a stone packing, the function of which was to keep the tops of the stones level. The average diameter of a Carrowmore circle is ten to twelve meters, though a few such as 19, 22, 27 and 51 are larger.

Carrowmore 7 by Elcock.
Carrowmore 7, the Kissing Stone by Charles Elcock, 1882. The model has been reduced to the size of a hobbit to make the dolmen appear larger and more imposing.

The Kissing Stone is the best example of a complete monument remaining today remaining in Carrowmore today. The monument is on private land and public access to this fine monument is not currently permitted.

Carrowmore 7 consists of a complete circle of boulders about eleven meters in diameter, surrounding a platform which suppurts a beautifully graceful dolmen, or floating stone table. The sockets of missing stones were found during the excavations, which show that there was once a short passage leading into the chamber.

The destroyed remains of monument 5 at Carrowmore. The stones were used to build a field wall around 1840.
The destroyed remains of monument 5 at Carrowmore. The stones were used to build a field wall around 1840.

Art and Astronomy

According to official sources, only one monument—the Kissing Stone— has an astronomical alignment. In reality it is probably better to view these early monuments as free-standing sundials rather than precisely focussed later instruments like Cairn T or Newgrange.

Equinox sunrise over the Kissing Stone at Carrowmore in County Sligo. Photograph © Ken Williams, Shadows and Stone.
Equinox sunrise over the Kissing Stone at Carrowmore in County Sligo. Photograph © Ken Williams, Shadows and Stone.

The photograph of the Kissing Stone by Ken William's, above illustrates the idea that these monuments can function quite well as sundials. The monument with the most obvious astronomical alignment is Listoghil, the largest and most impressive dolmen, and the only Carrowmore monument to become a cairn.

Listoghil

The largest monument at Carrowmore is the great chamber at Listoghil which was constructed around 5,600 BC. The chamber is supported by a massive platform which may date to beyond 4,000 BC.

Listoghil has the largest capstone found in Carrowmore, a massive slab of limestone which is believed to have been quarried in the Glen close to the court-cairn at Primrose Grange.

Sunbeam and shadow-spear within the chamber of Listoghil, Monday 28th October, 2019.
Sunbeam and shadow-spear within the chamber of Listoghil, Tuesday 29th October, 2019.

The great chamber at Listoghil would have functioned as a sophisticated sundial, sitting within concentric rings of circles upon its great platform, commanding a total panorama of the surrounding mountains. The limestone slab covering the chamber is inclined towards the mountains at an angle that captures the sunbeam on the underside of the chamber roof. The triangular blocking stone in the doorway casts a dramatic shadow like a witch's hat. A piece of engraved neolithic art on the edge of the stone seems to illustrate the alignment and event.

 

Circle 57 at Carrowmore looking west to Knocknarea.
Circle 57 at Carrowmore looking west to Knocknarea.

A Great Wheel

Though the circles at Carrowmore are quite ruined, fourteen of the monuments have the remains of passages. A few of these symbolic entrances point back to Listoghil at the heart of Carrowmore, but several point to other monuments or indeed to sites on the nearby mountains.

However, Carrowmore ultimately seems to be a model of an older monument or sacred place, possibly back in Brittany or even Anatolia. Carrowmore was a great wheel of some forty stone circles or passage-graves with one large monument representing the chamber close to the heart of the complex.

A fantastic photograph of Circle 27 at Carrowmore with Knocknarea beyond.
A fantastic photograph of Circle 27 at Carrowmore with Knocknarea beyond illustrates how the whole complex may be a model of a monument: ring around the outside, chamber at the centre.
Image © National Monuments Service.

Some of the larger boulders were split in half, a feature that can be seen in the chamber of Circle 27. The rock is rich with veins of quartz, and was brought to the site not by hand, but by retreating glaciers during the ice age. Several fields of gneiss boulders lying as they were dropped by the galciers can be seen from the path up Knocknarea on the left (west) side, and gives an impression of what Carrowmore looked like before the circles were built.

Carrowmore 13 and 14.
The Druid's Altar or Carrowmore 13 which was damaged by a car crash in 1985 and the last two stones from Carrowmore 14, destroyed by gravel quarrying in the 1800's.

The Cuil Iorra peninsula where Carrowmore is located is limestone covered with a mantle of glacial gravel. The complex is located on a plateau at the centre of the peninsula, with the circles built around the edge. Some limestone slabs were used in the monuments, but not many compared to the gneiss boulders. A good example if the massive capstone on the chamber at site 51, which is thought to have been quarried at the Glen on the south slope of Knocknarea. Some loose limestone slabs may have been used as roofing for the passages (again there is a good example at Site 27).

Dolmen 52 by Welsh.
Dolmen 52 at Carrowmore and Queen Maeve's cairn, photographed by Robert Welch in 1896. The stone circle was broken up and used to build the field wall in 1837.

Quartz at Carrowmore

Fragments of quartz were found in most of the circles, and these would have come from the Ox Mountains to the south, specifically from the area around Croughan. Most of Wood-Martin's excavation reports mention fragments or chunks of quartz.

One small piece of clear rock crystal, discovered in Circle 3, had a hole drilled through the end and was used as a pendant or pendelum. Reverend Henry mentions abundant rock crystals around Knocknarea and Queen Maeve's cairn.

Quartz was also found in the ditches of the causewayed enclosure at Magheraboy close-by. Here some thirty chunks of quartz were buried in a ring around a deposited axe head, almost mimicking a Carrowmore monument. 

Circle 26
Looking north from the Phantom Stones across monument 59 to Circle 26 beyond.

There is no evidence of cairns or mounds ever having covered the chambers of the Carrowmore monuments, with the exception of Listoghil. The satellite monuments were all free-standing, constructed on a raised platform or tertres which can be up to a meter above the surrounding ground level.

Circle 57 and Kesh Corran.
The largely complete Circle 57 and Kesh Corran, part of the Bricklieve Mountains in south Sligo.